Seeking Western Men: Email-Order Brides under China’s Global Rise by Monica Liu

Seeking Western Men: Email-Order Brides under China’s Global Rise by Monica Liu

It’s been a minute since I’ve read an ethnography — and enjoyed it in the way I enjoy fiction. Liu does an amazing job making her subjects tangible for her reader and weaving story into the reality of her research. The result is brilliant academic anthropology; a portrait of women’s lives in modern China that transports the Western/Western-based reader into that world. This is a work suitable for all adult readers, those interested in the minute theoretical discussions of academia as well as a more general audience, those interested in simply knowing and witnessing a way of life foreign to their own.

Liu’s ethnography takes us to modern China and into the micro-world of online dating. The reader is specifically given entree into the kind of dating world that has been typically derided as disempowering for women, fostering unequal relationships between Western men and Asian women (or really women of color or those from less wealthy economies): (E)mail Order Brides. The popular narrative depicts the men as wielding both physical, material, and financial power over the women. The men “call the shots” and the women come a-running, lacking agency to refuse or to determine the parameters of the relationship.

Liu’s major point, and the one that makes this ethnography so appealing, is that this is absolutely not an accurate understanding of the power dynamics in China’s e-mail order bride and online dating world. I won’t give away Liu’s evidence or the ways in which Liu reveals this to the reader; that would spoil the fun of reading this! But suffice it say, Liu shows us how much more nuanced reality is.

Chinese women — and those of a particular age, class, and circumstance — possess far more agency and power in these relationships than we are trained to believe. As an Asian woman with East Asian descent, I was particularly intrigued by Liu’s work. In my own American world, women of my race and ethnicity remain stereotyped as submissive wives/girlfriends/spouses, as heteronormative sexual objects, or as “dragon ladies” or worse… simply invisible. Liu’s work was eye-opening and refreshing.

Liu’s work suggests a new world order in terms of Chinese gender and gender identity is coming, although, we should not expect revolutionary ideas necessarily. There are aspects of Liu’s findings that suggest the patriarchy is still strong in China, that the new world order is merely a reworking of it to fit into modern context. I don”t mean to be teleological, but “we have a long way to go” is still a valid comment.

The book is divided into short, easily digestible chapters, each one taking on a different perspective of the women studied. Liu discusses their class, their age, their personal goals in systematic form, allowing the reader to grasp the diversity of Chinese women in this world, from those who own the dating business to those who work for them, and of course, the women who are its customers and consumers. The men too, Western and Chinese, are included in this study, though their perspectives and voices are often filtered through the women. Geographically, Liu takes us into the heart of urban China, but also brings us along to America so we are able to follow along the full migration pathway of some of the women. Liu’s book possesses breadth in multiple ways.

Enough: A Memoir of Mistakes, Mania, and Motherhood by Amelia Zachry

Enough: A Memoir of Mistakes, Mania, and Motherhood
by Amelia Zachry

This was an incredibly difficult memoir to read, but I am grateful that I did. Part of the hand-to-my-throat factor for me was how close Zachry’s experiences were to my own. Like her I am a Malaysian woman, one who entered the slipstream of migration and has become a transcultural, transnational creature with feet and hands in multiple worlds.

I also recognized the gaslighting and the gendered physical and psychological violence embedded in Malaysian culture. I recognized the gaslighting and gendered violence she experienced embedded in human society everywhere.

This was hard, so hard, to read at so many points. I had to put this book down multiple times. But the discomfort it caused was also what forced me to return to it. The kind of emotional disturbance Zachry’s memoir inflicts is that which can only be excised by pushing through all the way to the end.

I am glad I returned to it, acknowledged her pain my own (caused by reading it) and kept going in spite of all that. There is more than suffering in this memoir. Zachry illuminates a healing path too.

Zachry’s memoir is not a Malaysian one, although this is a cultural aspect of her experience that cannot be brushed aside. In this I recognized Zachry’s heritage as akin to my own; women told to swallow their pride, their pain, their voices. It is a world in which women remain — and are expected to remain — invisible. And this is true across Malaysia’s many cultures, ethnicities, and religious communities. For all the lovely tropical lushness of Malaysia, it is not a paradise for everyone; feminism is throttled by legal manipulations, feminists ostracized as social pariahs (even when Western-style feminism is eschewed in favor of local versions of feminism.)

But, I digress; Enough is not a memoir of a culture. Zachry’s experience is one that is all too familiar and common across cultures and in all societies. It is an extraordinary story of a crime that is horrendously ordinary. Hers was a life lived by many people; that’s what makes Enough so memorable, so relatable, so important to read.

Zachry’s memoir begins at her beginning, with childhood, then takes the reader into her teenage and early adult years. It is then that Zachry’s life is altered by an event that haunts her (even now after she has found ways to manage it). The bulk of this memoir is devoted to Zachry’s struggle with the trauma of this event, her path to a recovery, and it ends with a substantial section on her present life which shifts the focus to the traumas of migration and the development of her transcultural identity. Zachry’s journey to a happy place is not one filled with woo-woo cures or unattainable magic pills. Zachry documents how hard work, emotional work punctuated by slips and backslides is the tried and true path; one accessible to all of us, at least in theory.

This is a memoir for all women because this is a story we all know, first-hand, second-hand, or otherwise.

The Easter Parade by Richard Yates

The Easter Parade by Richard Yates

Originally published in 1976, The Easter Parade, justifies its classic status. The story, revolving around gendered concerns, the complications of family and love, imparting a sense of futility and time passing, remains wholly contemporary. Yates’ novel is one that entered on a timelessness human experience: life and living.

That said, for all its timelessness, the novel is grounded in its historical moment. It carries the reader through several decades, letting them be witness to shifts in American culture, especially as it pertains to gendered expectations and the function of love and sex in the lives of educated white women in mid-twentieth century America.

The plot follows the life of two sisters, though it is centrally focused on the younger, Emily Grimes. As children Sarah and Emily Grimes were part of a generation whose parents were divorced; their mother is a single mother, their father is an absent, yet present factor in their lives. The tale follows them through adolescence and then young adulthood, where their paths diverge. Sarah takes the more conventional path of marriage, child-bearing and raising, while Emily pursues academic life, single womanhood, love affairs — marriage too, but also divorce — and a career. The Easter Parade is built on their divergent, yet intertwined lives; Part three and four of the novel take the reader into the interiority of their familial and sibling bond. Despite their differences, the sisters remain, well, sisters.

In a sense, this is a novel about nothing and everything, the intangibility of our lives and the worth of living those lives. I have just finished reading it, feeling like I have traversed the twentieth century, like I have witnessed humanity being played out among other people, been given a privileged view into someone’s life.